Friday, February 24, 2017
The Bow-Tied Bard of POPULISM
Tucker Carlson’s latest reinvention is guided by a simple principle—a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe.
Tucker Carlson is selling me hard on the swamp. It is an unseasonably warm afternoon in late January, and we are seated at a corner table in Monocle, an upscale Capitol Hill restaurant frequented by the Fox News star. (Carlson, who typically skips breakfast and spends dinnertime on the air, is a fan of the long, luxurious, multi-course lunch, and when I requested an interview he proposed we do it here.) As we scan the menus, I mention that I’ll be moving soon to the Washington area, and he promptly launches into an enthusiastic recitation of the district’s many virtues and amenities.
“I’m so pathetically eager for people to love D.C.,” he admits. “It’s so sad. It’s like I work for the chamber of commerce or something.”
If this boosterism seems out of character for a primetime populist like Carlson, he doesn’t seem to mind the dissonance. He speaks glowingly of his Northwest Washington neighborhood, a tony enclave of liberal affluence where, he tells me, he is surrounded by diplomats, lawyers, world bankers, and well-paid media types. They are reliably “wonderful”; unfailingly “nice”; “some of my favorite people in the world.” If you’ve watched Carlson on TV lately, you know they are also wrong about virtually everything.
Indeed, throughout the 2016 election cycle Carlson routinely deployed his anonymous neighbors as a device in his political punditry—pointing to them as emblems of the educated elite’s insular thinking. He scoffed at their affection for Marco Rubio in the primaries, and he ridiculed their self-righteous reactions to the Republican nominee in the general. “On my street,” he wrote in Politico Magazine, “there’s never been anyone as unpopular as Trump.”
This shtick worked brilliantly for Carlson, catapulting him from a weekend hosting gig to the coveted 9 p.m. slot in Fox’s primetime lineup. He now regularly pulls in more than 3 million viewers a night—a marked improvement on the program he replaced—and he counts the commander in chief among his loyal fans. Just this past weekend, President Trump set off a minor international firestorm when he suggested Sweden was experiencing an immigrant-fueled spike in crime—a (dubious) claim he picked up by watching Tucker Carlson Tonight.
In an era when TV talking heads are more influential than ever, Carlson has suddenly—and rather improbably—emerged as one of the most powerful people in media. The question now is what he wants to do with that perch.
To the extent that Carlson’s on-air commentary these days is guided by any kind of animating idea, it is perhaps best summarized as a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe. The country has reached a point, he tells me, where the elite consensus on any given issue should be “reflexively distrusted.”
“Look, it’s really simple,” Carlson says. “The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.”
“But the problem with the meritocracy,” he continues, is that it “leeches all the empathy out of your society … The second you think that all your good fortune is a product of your virtue, you become highly judgmental, lacking empathy, totally without self-awareness, arrogant, stupid—I mean all the stuff that our ruling class is.”
Carlson recounts, with some amusement, how he saw these attitudes surface in his neighbors’ response to Trump’s victory. He recalls receiving a text message on election night from a stunned Democratic friend declaring his intention to flee the country with his family. Carlson replied by asking if he could use their pool while they were gone.
“I mean people were, like, traumatized,” he says. And yet, in the months since then, “no one I know has learned anything. There’s been no moment of reflection … It’s just, ‘This is what happens when you let dumb people vote.’” Carlson finds this brand of snobbery particularly offensive: “Intelligence is not a moral category. That’s what I find a lot of people in my life assume. It’s not. God doesn’t care how smart you are, actually.”
To many, of course, this populist posture will reek of phoniness—and the skeptics are not without evidence. Here, let the record show that Tucker Carlson was born and raised in the pricey beachside paradise of La Jolla, California; that his stepmother was heiress to the Swanson frozen-food fortune; that he attended an exclusive east-coast boarding school and married the headmaster’s daughter; that for a considerable period of time, he was famous for sporting preposterously preppy bowties. All of which is to say, if you are looking for a cable host with authentic blue-collar credentials, Carlson is probably not your man.
What’s more, Carlson’s politics have undergone more than one evolution over the course of his career in television. When he started out in the early 2000s on CNN’s Crossfire, he generally played the part of a mainline partisan—a champion of the Iraq War (he soured on the endeavor after a year), and an ardent Bush defender (he soured on the president after a term). After leaving CNN in 2005 he landed at MSNBC, where he morphed into a libertarian. And when his show there was cancelled less than three years later, he ended up at Fox News, serving as a utility pundit and eventually emerging as a mischief-making advocate for Trump-style nationalism.
A cynical soul might detect careerism in that trajectory. Carlson, for his part, readily admits that his worldview has transformed over the years. These days, he tells me, “I’m not much of an economic conservative, and I’m not conservative at all on foreign policy.” Nevertheless, he insists the evolution has been organic. “If your politics don’t change when circumstances do, you’re an idiot, you’re a reactionary.”
More to the point, he says, “My views are not super interesting.”
In a sense, he’s right. Carlson’s true talent is not for political philosophizing, it’s for televised partisan combat. His go-to weapons—the smirky sarcasm, the barbed comebacks, the vicious politeness—seem uniquely designed to drive his sparring partners nuts, frequently making for terrific television. Indeed, if cable news is ultimately theater, Carlson’s nightly performance is at once provocative, maddening, cringe-inducing, and compulsively watchable. Already, in its few short months in primetime, Tucker Carlson Tonight has created more viral moments than it had any right to do.
In one early example, Carlson’s interview with Newsweek political reporter Kurt Eichenwald went so far off the rails that the host was reduced to asking the same question over and over again, while the liberal guest waved around a binder labeled, “Tucker Carlson Falsehoods.” When the segment ended, Eichenwald took to Twitter to vent his frustrations, ended up fighting with an army of conservative trolls, and ultimately claimed to suffer a seizure when one of them tweeted a flashing strobe GIF at him.
“I was shocked by the whole thing,” Carlson tells me, looking back on the episode. “I didn’t want to be mean to him. I really didn’t.” Though he has earned a reputation among his media antagonists for being an ambush artist—luring guests onto his show under false pretenses and then humiliating them with “gotcha” questions—Carlson says he’s always upfront while booking interviewees, and strives to avoid mean-spiritedness.
“If I find myself wanting to be mean to anyone, it’s time to stop,” he tells me.
“Does that happen sometimes?” I ask.
He glances down at his salad. “It’s happened once, yeah.”
“With, um, a woman from Teen Glamour.”
I know instantly what interview he’s talking about. “You mean Teen Vogue?”
The segment is one of his most notorious—an interview just before Christmas with the liberal writer Lauren Duca. The discussion was supposed to focus on the harassment Ivanka Trump had recently endured during a commercial flight. But the segment got off to a contentious start, and it quickly descended into Carlson nitpicking Duca’s diction and taking petty shots at her employer. After mockingly reading a handful of headlines from Duca’s celebrity fashion coverage, he ended the segment by advising, “You should stick to the thigh-high boots. You are better at that.” The interview promptly went viral, and the host came off looking mean, sexist, and faintly pathetic.
Carlson says now that he regrets the way he handled the interview, and blames his bad behavior on his own lack of preparation for the segment. “I don’t ever want to get mad … I think it diminishes me and the show, and I don’t want to be that way.”
When I ask him why he was so infuriated by Duca, he thinks about it for a moment.
Finally, he answers, “It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption—and it’s held by a lot of people I live around—that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”
Fair or not, this is the essence of Carlson’s case against the educated elites and well-heeled technocrats that comprise America’s ruling class (not to mention his neighborhood). They are too certain of their own righteousness, too dismissive of dissenters, too unwilling to entertain new ideas.
When Carlson first joined primetime last year, he assigned his show a mission statement: “The sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and groupthink.” To his critics, the slogan is crazy-making for the brazen hypocrisy they believe it displays. But the potency of the host’s performance is not rooted in personal purity—it’s in his ability to capture the sentiment of a rapidly mutating conservative movement.
Even as denizens of the right continue to sort out what they stand for in the Trump era, they remain united in their hatred of a common enemy, the smug elites who Carlson rails against every night. And while he may have spent his life happily living among them, he’s clearly demonstrated he has no qualms about taking them on.
“Putting smart people in charge of things is fine, but what you really want is wise people,” he tells me, and then quotes something his father used to say: “The beginning of wisdom is to know what an asshole you are.”